Jennifer Poutney, client services manager at Volpa, explains how she helped her team achieve the PRCA’s Communications Management Standard (CMS), helping the Perth based agency secure its position as one of Scotland’s leading independent communications agencies
The Communications Management Standard (CMS) is awarded by the PRCA to companies which demonstrate operational excellence. The industry standard benchmark, which has been achieved by only two other agencies headquartered in Scotland, and is valid for a period of one year, combines elements of ‘ISO9001’ and ‘Investors in People’ with criteria specific to a communications consultancy. Consultancies are scored on nine core areas including leadership and communication, business planning, business improvement, financial management and systems, campaign management, client satisfaction, new business, people management and diversity.
As Client Services Manager at Volpa I wanted to give some help and advice to agencies thinking about applying for CMS Accreditation.
For some people, the idea of taking themselves through an accreditation which is as thorough as CMS, would be too intimidating. I thought it would be helpful to share my experiences and hope that perhaps it would give some confidence to others to give it a go.
We went through the CMS process initially in 2018. I remember at the time looking at the spreadsheet full of requirements and thinking “Dear God, this task is mammoth!”. I was not wrong. The reason the accreditation is so special is because it takes commitment to confidently go through the process.
Be Methodical and transparent
My first piece of advice is to be methodical. I was very clear that I needed a system to store and write all the evidence needed to support our submission. We already use an online information sharing platform, so for us, this was the perfect tool for the job. I systematically entered every line item of the CMS as ‘tasks’ into our system and any notes included as well. This meant that I could click on each task and know exactly what was needed. I was then able to find the evidence to support the requirement and load it into the task. So, in one simple step, everything needed to pass that line item of the CMS was there in one place. It also means that all your notes and files are still there, so reminding yourself of that becomes easy a year or two later when you have to undertake subsequent CMS accreditations. Your starting place is no longer a blank piece of paper, so to speak.
Thankfully, we run a business which is well structured. We have all the elements in place that any good business does. For some this may mean extra work. For example, a vision statement or a clear business plan may not be something you have in your business. You do have to be honest with yourself about how well your business operates. We have spent a lot of time over the years investing in systems and processes that streamline how we operate day to day. It makes life more consistent, and much easier for setting expectations.
If you don’t have these in place, then the CMS is a great way to nail these down. Working your way through the tasks as a ‘to do list’ will do your business no harm. It is a great check and balance to ensure any core elements of business management are not missed.
This is probably the hardest part of the CMS. If you are a logical thinker, then the links between business plan, reporting, updates, and execution are all tightly and logically linked. Not everyone thinks like that, which is harder. You do have to walk the walk as they say. Some things like meeting plans, agendas and minutes are easier as that is standard good practice. However, other items we found we had to take time to pull together and have a more articulate approach. As an example, we do a lot of great communication in our business internally and externally. Developing a Communication strategy for the business as part of the CMS was a great opportunity to get clarity of thought. It’s a great tool to share with the team and for new team members to get an appreciation of how we operate. It was a prompt, and opportunity, to make our systems sleek. Again, once you go for a subsequent accreditation, these documents all already exist, so the process is so much simpler second time around.
Have your team support you in the process. This is not an isolated event. It must be a living, breathing process. The more your team are on board with it, the easier your life becomes. For example, if your finance department understand what is required, and the evidence required, they can actively be ensuring all the elements needed are filed accordingly. Examples would be budget reviews. When we are forecasting finance values, we always create notes of what values we change and why against the prior budget review. If we ensure these are saved centrally, we can lay our hands on them when needed. Imagine if all your team took this approach, your subsequent accreditation process would be so much simpler.
The team at PRCA could not be more helpful in the process. Their approach is not to trip you up or make life difficult. Our experience was great. We were given all the help we needed to understand any specific requirements and at no point in those discussions did it feel like we were being ‘tested’.
The Assessment itself
We are sent a request for three subsections of the CMS criteria. We then have a timeslot in which to send them any of the files and evidence to demonstrate efficiency in that section. Because we hold all the evidence and files in our online filing system, it makes it much easier to lay your hands on what you need quickly. Suddenly when you have all the focus on those three subsections, I found a new level of scrutiny on the information we had to offer. Having that timeslot is great because you can tweak or find new information should you want it. It means the information you send back is of the standard you would like.
If you don’t have that preparation beforehand, you would struggle in the timeslots available. It is surprising how many screen shots, or agendas and documents you want to send to prove you run a tight ship.
The CMS has become an annual event now, which I agree with. These processes and documents should be a core part of the running of a business. Once you gain your CMS it is easy not to reference it again until the next accreditation. However, after a time of not familiarising yourself with the requirements, it is certainly more of an uphill struggle to get your evidence back in shape. Alternatively, keeping it fresh in your day-to-day requirements reminds you to file supporting information along the way, remembering to take evidence at the time and follow your own processes.